Fireworks Wednesday

Taraneh Alidoosti in Fireworks Wednesday

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

18 December

 

 

Islamic Development Bank founded, 1973

On this day in 1973, finance ministers meeting at the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (now called the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) set up the Islamic Development Bank. Designed to serve Muslims around the world, it is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iran, Egypt and other leading Islamic countries and in May 2013 it tripled its authorised capital to $150 billion. It operates by lending money for “productive projects and enterprises” – development projects including bridges, canals, roads and other infrastructure. Though it is often assumed that the earning of interest against the lending of money is against the spirit of the Koran, Muslims have come to the same accommodation to the practice as Christians did when they stopped equating all money-lending with usury. The emphasis now, in Islam as elsewhere, is on ethical lending at reasonable rates of interest.

 

 

 

Fireworks Wednesday (2006, dir: Asghar Farhadi)

Fireworks Wednesday’s opening shot is of a young Iranian woman in a long, flowing chador riding along a dirt road on the back of her fiancé’s motorbike. She’s looking at pictures as she goes and so doesn’t notice that her chador has slipped. It gets caught in the bike chain and the bike comes to a shuddering halt, throwing the couple to the ground. They are unhurt but the point has been made – how do people living modern lives function if they are encumbered by tradition? And off we go, into a film that sees the young, wide-eyed bride-to-be injected into the household of a well-to-do couple just before the day when the new year will be marked with fireworks. They are far more Western than she, mutually suspicious, their marriage falling apart around them. Point two has been made. Do we want to live in a world of Western values, where sacred institutions are treated as valueless? This being Asghar Farhadi, whose A Separation deservedly won him the best foreign language Oscar in 2012, this discussion goes on at a good depth below the surface, lumbering analogy is not what Fireworks Wednesday is about. And, like A Separation, Fireworks Wednesday is as easy to watch as a soap opera, particularly in the way it introduces characters expertly and effortlessly. We meet the wife, the husband, the hairdresser next door whom the husband is possibly having an affair with. We meet various other people orbiting this group, each of them on the screen as fully formed characters. The acting is so good, the camera so unobtrusive, the situations so perfectly presented to us that it is easy to forget that this is a film at all; it has a documentary believability. It is, if anything, even better than A Separation – one of the best films of 2011 – and sets Farhadi among that elite group of brilliant Iranian directors, such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A director at the top of his game
  • A simple yet profound drama
  • A peek inside modern Iranian life
  • Taraneh Alidoosti’s wide-eyed central performance

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Fireworks Wednesday – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

9 December 2013-12-09

See what I mean about mood? James Wan's The Conjuring

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

The Conjuring (Warner, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A family living out in the boonies is terrorised by a demon spirit in this moody horror film directed by James Wan and written by twin brothers Chad and Carey Hayes. The Hayes brothers are in their 50s but Wan wasn’t even born when The Exorcist was released in 1973. But he’s definitely seen the film; The Conjuring is an exercise in Exorcist atmospherics – all rosaries, Latin and vomit. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson play the weird earnest, hucksterish exorcists, Farmiga deliberately going for Ellen Burstyn in her performance, Wilson wisely staying away from any suggestion of channelling Max Von Sydow. Meanwhile inside the house where the demon infestation is going on, Wan shows us he has also seen The Amityville Horror and, just for high-tone kudos, Don’t Look Now. It is all very well done, if a touch underwritten, but then Wan also got the mood pretty well right with his previous 1970s horror homage, Insidious. And it makes a change from the Saw films, which is what Wan made his name with.

The Conjuring – at Amazon

 

 

Fireworks Wednesday (Axiom, cert 12, DVD)

Made in 2006 but only getting a release now, off the back of the Oscar-winning A Separation, this similarly domestic, similarly brilliant drama by the Iranian master Asghar Farhadi follows Roohi (Taraneh Alidoosti), a prospective bride from a poor traditional background, into a middle class household, where she works as a cleaner while the well-to-do couple’s marriage falls apart around her. As with A Separation, Farhadi spins several stories together with effortless style – the wife, the husband, the hairdresser, the girl, and various other minor characters who all arrive fully formed on screen. It is so brilliantly acted that you have to keep reminding yourself that you’re not eavesdropping, and so well plotted that you are gripped to the end. As for its message – in spite of the devout opening intertitle which reads “For the love of God”, Farhadi is pointing out quietly that Islam needs to drop some of the non-Koranic codes if it’s going to survive in the modern world. Roohi can’t ride on the back of a motorbike wearing a long, flowing chador without it getting caught in the wheels, which is what happens in the film’s opening scene. Watch out for that chador – it keeps popping up.

Fireworks Wednesday – at Amazon

 

 

2 Guns (E One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

2 Guns is dumbass entertainment done well, which asks for and gets charismatic performances from its stars, Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington. They play the pair of crooks who turn out to be not quite who they say they are – and neither knows who the other guy really is either. If it looks like a thriller at first – the gunplay, the wiseass dialogue, director Baltasar Kormákur’s love of an overhead shot – it’s actually a farce, with the action accelerating as the film progresses, and more and more characters arriving to make things even more deliberately confusing. Talking of which, pantomime performances from Bill Paxton as a very hardass CIA guy and Edward James Olmos as the suave, cruel and loquacious baddie help it to swing along, while the soundtrack lays down wah-chukka-wah sounds just to deliver an extra nudge in the ribs. Add pizza and enjoy.

2 Guns – at Amazon

 

 

This Ain’t California (Luxin, cert 12, DVD)

When is a documentary not a documentary? This Ain’t California is a good place to start answering the question. On the surface at least it’s a documentary about the skateboard scene in Eastern Germany, the communist bit, back in the 1980s. And a very good one it is too. Telling the story of a group of friends who get back together in 2011 (ish) to mourn the death of one of their number, it cuts between camp fire reminiscence and old Super 8 film shot by one of the group. The focus is on Denis “Panik” Paraceck, who went from being one of the young boys learning to skateboard to a very cool teenager dude at the back end of the 1980s, good cheekbones, peroxide hair and a maverick streak making him very popular with the girls. And there is a lot of footage, as well as photographs, and the odd bit of animation to fill in the odd gap as we hear the story told of how the childhood friends went from streetskaters to competitors at the skateboarding championships in Prague, where they met Western idols, as well as becoming magnets for the Stasi, always wary of the latest fad from the decadent West. It’s the story of communism undermined by its inability to adapt, the old “Levi’s won the Cold War” slogan recoined. In fact there is so much grainy old footage that it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that some of it might have been added afterwards, faked up to look like it’s from the 1980s. And what about the people around the camp fire, reminiscing? It seems some of those might not be real people either, the director Marten Persiel admitted under close questioning at some festival screening (Berlin, I think). As for Panik – well it turns out he’s played by a model called Kai Hillebrand. But hang on a sec. He’s the main character, and if he’s not real, then that throws the status of his “friends” out the window too. And the footage. The whole thing, in fact. Which doesn’t make this “documentary” any less enjoyable or informative.

This Ain’t California – at Amazon

 

 

Leviathan (Dogwoof, cert E, Blu-ray/DVD)

Here’s an impressionist, wordless documentary that simply couldn’t have been made a few years ago. Relying on the digital camera’s ability to get into difficult corners, endure more aggressive handling, perform in more extreme conditions, under lower light, it charts the tough existence for the guys, and even tougher time for the fish and shellfish, on a trawler in the North Atlantic. And what a bloody business it is – the nets come up, the fish come out. If they are skate they are held up by one guy, the wings hacked off by another guy, the remainder of the beast then chucked over the side. If cod, then it’s heads off and downstairs to the ice, the head slopping about on the wet deck before it too goes over the side. The camera is on the deck with the fish’s head, on the crest of the wave as the chum slops off the deck and back into the ocean, where phalanxes of seagulls provide escort, waiting hungrily. We hear no speech, there is no voiceover, there aren’t even that many shots – the camera holds focus on one guy for about five minutes as he sits below deck, exhaustedly half-watching a bit of TV, before eventually nodding off onto his chest. Then it’s back up to the deck, the chum, the waves, under the waves even, for more clanking and churning, shucking and chucking. In the Old Testament, Leviathan is a sea monster. Very appropriate.

Leviathan – at Amazon

 

 

Kick-Ass 2 (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/VOD)

“OK you cunts… Let’s see what you can do now!” That line, spoken by Chloë Grace Moretz in the first Kick-Ass film, said everything you needed to know about it. Coming from the mouth of a 12-year-old girl, it was shocking and very very funny. Moretz is still the funniest and best thing about this sequel with a similar plot – average earnest Joes donning stupid superhero costumes to give their life more meaning. But it doesn’t have the balls of the first film, and also hasn’t taken on board what was obviously wrong with the first film (extremely funny though it was). To wit: the Kick-Ass character. Nothing wrong with Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s playing of him, it’s that Kick-Ass is just a dim bulb. He isn’t interesting, nor is his superhero alter-ego. His nemesis, who has decided on a name-change – Red Mist to Motherfucker – does a little better, largely because he’s played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse at full snivel. Yes, there are good moments, in spite of the absence of writer Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn this time round, but nearly all happen when Moretz is on screen, shouting “Game on, cocksuckers” or some such at bewildered villains, in a style she’s learnt from Nicolas Cage (whose absence is also really keenly felt). And she just isn’t on screen enough.

Kick-Ass 2 – at Amazon

 

 

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (Fox, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

The faintly mythological franchise returns, with Logan Lerman back as Jackson, a Harry Potter who’s half Greek god rather than half wizard. And Potter is the clear template for this opportunistic and dull adventure that clearly doesn’t command the respect of the studio, or else they’d have shelled out for better CGI. The story: Percy discovers he has a half-brother – those gods do get about – a cyclops called Tyson (played by Douglas Smith) who would actually be an attractive young man if it weren’t for the single eye in his head. A bit of convenient magic later and the single eye has been masked, allowing teenage girls who don’t go for Percy to fix their passions on Tyson, who is a junior league Chris Hemsworth. And off they go, the trio of the boring Percy, the dumb Tyson and the smart Annabeth (Alexandria Daddario) – same attributes as the Potter heroes – for an adventure which devolves at every opportunity into by-the-numbers action-movie sound and fury. It is nothing other than a half-blood Potter done less well, though a well imagined sequence inside a monster’s belly does suggest that someone somewhere is trying. Perhaps they’ll get their head in the next instalment, announced abruptly at the end of this unconvincing 100 minutes.

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

The Best Films I Saw in 2013

The cast of You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet
Updated 2013-12-30

 

Here they are, the best films I saw in 2013. It’s a Top Ten job with the best in no particular order, followed by a list of films that made the top ten at some point in the year, then got bounced. This is not a Best of 2013, let me quickly point out, just the best films I’ve seen this year. So a film everyone else has seen but I haven’t won’t be here (I’ve not seen American Hustle yet, f’rinstance). And there might be stragglers from 2012 in here which caught up with late. It really is “the best films I have seen this year”. If you’re wondering what to do with that Amazon voucher and your tastes generally aren’t multiplex, this might be a useful place to start.

 

1. You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (2012, dir: Alain Resnais)

Alain Resnais, now in his nineties, proves there’s life in the new wave dog yet with an amazingly convoluted meta-drama based on two Anouilh plays, thick with formal experiment and managing to weld classical theatre to 21st century techniques. Amazing, and you can bet it made both Lars Von Trier and Todd Solondz chuckle too.

 

2. Aurora (2010, dir: Cristi Puiu)

The Romanian Cristi Puiu made The Death of Mr Lazarescu and also stars in what might be considered a follow-up, a film that tells a story while also running an audit on the current state of the homeland. The story: a very odd one, following what must the dourest hitman (Puiu) through concrete-coloured Bucharest as he goes about his often incredibly mundane business. Shot in long takes, in blue light, in the most unprepossessing of locations, with many shots half through doorways and focusing on the main character and him alone, it’s unique, remarkable and often quite baffling.

 

3. The Heat (2013, dir: Paul Feig)

Because no one is funnier than Melissa McCarthy right now, a buddy-cop comedy in which Sandra Bullock plays the uptight FBI agent reluctantly partnering a wildcat local cop (McCarthy). The plot is slender, but is just enough for Bridesmaids director Paul Feig to hang a few funny set pieces off. Better than that it gives a chance for the two actors to riff rude, with McCarthy inevitably getting the better of Bullock when it comes to being the swearier and more prepared to make herself look a fool. Fancy Bullock being in the best comedy of the year and its most popular sci-fi (which is not on my list because I haven’t seen it yet, for shame).

 

4. Angel & Tony (2010, dir: Alix Delaporte)

Big aah, a simple, short love story about a troubled beautiful young woman and the shy, fat middle-aged fisherman she rather unexpectedly hooks up with. Rather simply, this one’s all about the transformative power of love and is about as bloody lovely as films get.

 

5. I Wish  (2011, dir: Hirokazu Koreeda)

Hirokazu Koreeda’s drama is ostensibly about a kid who wants to make a wish, and believes that by making it at the exact point where two bullet trains’ paths cross, it is sure to come true. In fact he’s just the starting point for a whole series of lightly interconnected transgenerational stories, which the writer/director joins and rejoins. Everything about this film shouts genius – the placing of the camera, the casting, the acting, the editing. It’s also one of the sweetest films, so full of hope and life, I’ve ever seen.

 

6. The Kings of Summer (2013, Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

A coming-of-ager that has the raucous “fuck you” comic edge of Superbad and the elemental undertow of Stand By Me, The Kings of Summer is about a group of boys who head off to the woods one summer, mostly to escape their obnoxious, bullying, clever-clever parents, but partly just to do a bit of growing up. There they trap animals (or make out that they do), grow facial hair, invite girls over and get their hearts broken. It’s strange to find a film that intercuts comedy and heartache so well, that catches that great feeling of freedom that total irresponsibility allows, and which punctuates these switches between the two ends of the dramatic spectrum with contemplative “Ozu shots” of prairies and water and flowers, set to a soundtrack that manages to be both familiar and leftfield.

 

 7. She Monkeys (2011, dir: Lisa Aschan)

A Swedish drama that’s all about girls, power, sex and equestrian vaulting. Expect no fluffy bunnies in this one – in one of its twin-track stories we have a five-year-old girl sexually grooming her older babysitting cousin; in the other a butter-wouldn’t-melt blonde making a sumo-style All About Eve assault on a rival. Cool, unusual, brilliant.

 

8. Sightseers (2012, dir: Ben Wheatley)

A pair of incredibly dim British caravan enthusiasts set off on a tour of esoteric sites of special interest – museums dedicated to pencils or trams etc – and indulge in increasingly psychotic episodes of murder for light relief. A deadpan Natural Born Killers that will have you snorting liquid down your nose.

 

9. The Gatekeepers (2012, dir: Dror Moreh)

The best documentary I saw this year comes from director Dror Moreh, who somehow managed to get all the surviving former heads of the Israeli security agency Shin Bet to talk to him. What he have is little more than a series of talking heads explaining to Moreh how Shin Bet operates. But it is the way that Moreh structures the entirely stereotype-busting revelations dropping from these guys’ mouths – and they each look like a Bond villain of one sort or another – that makes this “jaw to the floor” viewing.

 

10. Silver Linings Playbook (2012, dir: David O Russell)

David O Russell’s sweet but never cute drama about a guy fresh from the funny farm (Bradley Cooper) and his burgeoning relationship with brassy fellow medicatee (Jennifer Lawrence). Underneath the warty carapace this is perfect Hollywood – everyone gets what they deserve, big lessons are learned, there’s silver linings all round, in fact. Or you could just watch it for the performances – Lawrence so good that she forces Robert De Niro to act. Even Chris Tucker puts in a great performance.

 

 

The “Nearly” List

The Sapphires (2012, dir: Wayne Blair)

We keep being told about the revival of the musical (clinkers like Chicago usually), so how come this one about a girl group of aborigine soul singers on a tour of 1960s Vietnam isn’t better known? It’s got songs, jokes, a bit of love and a standout Chris O’Dowd in the lead role. And it’s a true story.

 

Thale (2012, dir: Aleksander Nordaas)

Made for nothing yet looking like it cost millions, this Norwegian horror fantasy about a couple of police clean-up guys who find a mythical creature out in the cellar of a shack in the woods has plot, characters, looks, tension and, a few seconds of ropey CGI apart, is almost perfect.

 

Elena (2011, dir: Andrey Svyagintsev)

Andrey Svyagintsev’s throttled-back thriller about a woman in Russia, her boorish rich husband to whom she’s little more than a nurse, and her Soviet-throwback son and his family, a bunch of layabouts living out in the tower blocks.

 

Mama (2013, dir: Andrés Muschietti)

One of the seven thousand films Jessica Chastain made in the last year or so, Mama is a superior horror film that welds together the haunted house and malevolent-child genres and then throws a lot of switched sympathies into the mix. Watchable as an exercise in genre manipulation alone, or as an out-and-out horror movie, or as a bravura exercise in visual effects, this is one of the best mainstream horror films in years.

 

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012, dir: Alex Gibney)

Close to The Gatekeepers for “well stap my vitals” revelations is Alex Gibney’s remarkable documentary about paedophilia in the Roman Catholic church, how the organisation has been aware for at least 1,700 years that the vows of celibacy and chastity tend either to attract weirdos or make people weird. And that the Church has, by virtue of its institutional power, been able to subvert secular legal systems. This is a gobsmacking documentary of the old-fashioned pavement-pounding sort whose conclusions are that, lovely Pope Francis or no, in terms of moral authority the Catholic church is a busted flush.

 

Shell (2012, dir: Scott Graham)

A star is born, in the shape (the face, mostly) of Chloe Pirrie, the focus of this lugubrious drama about a girl who works in an out-of-the-way petrol station owned by her father. Shell is the girl’s name, it’s the name of a petrol company too, a passing customer jokily quips to the girl, who responds with a deep lack of engagement. Which is what the film is about  – is she going to engage? With Adam, a guy in a hot hatch? With a passing travelling salesman? Possibly with her own father? God forbid. But on this slender “who?” and “when?” director Scott Graham hangs a powerful film as austere and dour as a low church chapel.

 

In the House (2012, dir: François Ozon)

François Ozon doesn’t make dumb films, and in In the House he’s made a film that on one level is about a superbright, sexually precocious, unsettlingly androgynous schoolboy (Ernst Umhauer) who starts writing increasingly personal stories for his teacher (the brilliantly disconcerted Fabrice Luchini). Before long the teacher is hooked, the boy has become a cuckoo in the nest, the wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) is discombobulated, and Ozon has crafted a drama of the sort you can imagine Jacques Derrida and fellow post-structuralists enjoying with beer and a pizza.

 

Byzantium (2012, dir: Neil Jordan)

Neil Jordan does something excellent with the vampire movie in Byzantium. He manages to weld the lush overheated velvet of the Hammer horror, all heaving bosoms and the male gaze, to the austere IKEA ambience of Let the Right One In. As two (possible) sisters of competing vampiric sensibilities we have Gemma Arterton (the busty, Hammer lust-bucket) and Saoirse Ronan (self-assembly vampiric waiflet). Add an abandoned seaside hotel in off season, a few luckless male victims, a couple of bounders and rotters who arrive from the girls’ past to help deliver a rousing Hollywood ending, and you’ve got a film that grips by the throat, teases, entertains and beguiles.

 

8 ½ (1963, dir: Federico Fellini)

This restoration of one of Fellini’s most famous films reminds us what a clever man he was, as well as a consummate film-maker. Taking as its starting point the non-starting Fellini after he had finished La Dolce Vita, it tells the story of a blocked director who hasn’t got the faintest idea what to do next. Which all sounds very indulgent and unnecessarily arthouse, until you actually watch as Fellini slowly starts to spin his on-screen phalanx of actors, make-up people, producers, the director’s diversions, dreams and fantasies into something elaborate, fantastical and even at times funny. Marcello Mastroianni is the Fellini stand-in, and the film is really helped by the presence of Claudia Cardinale and Anouk Aimée, about the hottest women on the planet back in 1963.

 

The Wall (2012, dir: Julian Pölsler)

A weird and wonderful re-imagining of Robinson Crusoe. But instead of a man, it’s a woman (Martina Gedeck). Instead of an island it’s the landlocked country of Austria, inside which a woman on a bit of a weekend break, or something, suddenly discovers that she’s locked inside her rural idyll by an invisible wall. And there she stays for years, making friends with various stray animals, writing her diaries, musing on what it is to be human, alone. A deceptively simple but wonderfully told story, which raises the question of how any of us might cope if suddenly cut off completely from civilisation. And Austria looks pretty fantastic too.

 

Broken Circle Breakdown (2012, dir: Felix Van Groeningen)

Bluegrass music in Belgium provides the sweetener for what looks for one awful moment like it’s going to be a film about a child getting a terminal disease and dying. A child does actually get a terminal disease but that isn’t really what this artfully shot, pungently written drama – about a much-tattooed beauty (Veerle Baetens) striking up a relationship with an ex-punk (Johan Heldenburgh) and becoming a singer in his bluegrass outfit – is about. And god can she sing.

 

Fireworks Wednesday (2006, dir: Asghar Farhadi)

Finally finding its way to some sort of release off the back of the Oscar success of his A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s 2006 drama patrols a similar border, the one between traditional Islam and the blandishments of the West, and doesn’t so much wag his finger as point out the areas that are going to chafe. A simple story about a naive young girl who finds herself working for a family who seem to have adultery issues – and she’s about to get married herself – it is so well written, well cast and unobtrusively shot that it feels less like watching a movie more like eavesdropping.

 

Child’s Pose (2013, dir: Calin Peter Netzer)

Romania continues to come up with brilliant films, such as this dour drama about a horrible entitled mother trying to get her horrible ungrateful son off the charge of killing a poor child by dangerous driving. As much a portrait of the haves and have-nots of Romania and how justice is entirely in the service of only one of them (guess which), it is also a remarkable drama that withholds its true intentions. Hold on for the extended final sequence, when the mother goes to visit the dead child’s grieving parents, while the son waits out in the car, and remember to keep breathing.

 

The House I Live In (2012, dir: Eugene Jarecki)

Eugene Jarecki’s documentary about the sheer mess of US drugs policy points out the government has spent $1 trillion on the “war against drugs” since President Nixon initiated it, with the result that recreational drug use has changed not a jot. A well researched doc with the right talking heads, attitudinal but never strident.

 

Small Town Murder Songs (2010, dir: Ed Gass-Donnelly)

A drama that asks us to look at the character of an upstanding cop in a Mennonite community and divine the man he used to be – and it isn’t pretty. Peter Stormare’s hangdog features and impassive thousand yard stare make this hellish unusual type of film even more enjoyable.

 

The Queen of Versailles (2012, dir: Lauren Greenfield)

The documentary that asked us to feel billionaire pain, and succeeded. Starting out simply as a film about the building of the biggest private residence in the US, the enterprise somehow became something much more incisive – a story about financial mess we’ve all been going through, seen from the most rarefied of positions. Entirely fascinating.

 

Rust and Bone (2012, dir: Jacques Audiard)

Always making a bad film (Nine, Public Enemies) bearable and a good film (Inception, Contagion) better, Marion Cotillard is on absolute white hot form in this potentially blubbery drama about a woman who loses her legs and the bouncer (equally remarkable Matthias Schoenaearts) who gives her back her taste for life.

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013